Sermon - Epiphany 7 (Ordinary 7)Year B | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Authority to forgive
[Note: related themes are found in the following sermons: If you do not forgive, One who loves to forgive, Believing and forgiving, Healing the Outsider,and He taught with authority.]
The friends of the paralysed man showed great faith in Jesus and a good deal of enterprise when, finding the entrance too crowded, to they climbed onto the roof and made a hole in it to lower the sick man to where Jesus was inside the house. Jesus saw their effort as showing great faith, and responded to it by healing the man, but he spoke in a surprising way to him, not speaking of healing but of forgiveness:
Bystanders might have expected him to say something about making him well, and some were really shocked and deeply offended that he chose instead to speak in that way, forgiving sins. In last week's sermon on Healing the Outsider we had reason to consider one of the strong points of the Gospel reading for today: that when Jesus forgave a man his sins people asked "Who but God can forgive sins?" The suggestion is that either Jesus is God or what he said was blasphemy. We need to take this question further and relate it to what we believe about Jesus and what ordinary sinners like us can do about forgiving sins in our own everyday lives. It is worth remembering first the main point of last week's reflection on forgiveness in relation to healing. That is, that when Jesus healed people it was more than physical healing, as it had the potential to restore people to a renewed relationship with God and with other people. Forgiveness is involved because reconciliation with God and restoration to community with our neighbours are other aspects of spiritual wholeness. The body that is healed is more than the physical body in the way that Jesus worked. His claim was that forgiveness and healing can be so closely related that it makes little difference which you deal with because both are affected. Jesus said to his critics that he might just as well say "Your sins are forgiven" as say "Stand up, take your mat and walk." The related point for today is that while he could have spoken equally well of forgiveness or of healing, Jesus chose to say "Your sins are forgiven" because he knew that it would be effective for this person and to show that he had authority to forgive sins, so he added.
The proof of his authority to forgive was that the man "stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out". They were all amazed and glorified God, saying "Never before have we seen anything like this!" (Mark 2:12). Certainly, they saw him at least as someone very special because of this. Did that mean he was God? When he called himself "Son of Man" which Jesus probably intended to be an ambiguous title, it could have meant simply that called himslef "a human being", so he might have been saying something about humanity in general, about the potential of all people to exercise authority that they thought was divine? Or it could be that Jesus intended "Son of Man" to mean Messiah, the in the model of heroic figure in the prophecy of Daniel.
We took note of this a few weeks ago when we were thinking of the observation in the previous chapter of Mark that "the Son Man" taught with authority. So would his authority as "Son of Man" then have been his in particular and not something shared with any other human being? To heighten the tension of this question further, we need to take into account the fact that Jesus gave his disciples authority to forgive sins: according to John when Jesus met with his disciples after he rose from the dead he gave them authority to forgive sins in such a way that what they did would be recognised in heaven? That was done in their commissioning in the power of the Holy Spirit to be apostles, the sent ones, going out in his name.
Was it meant to apply to us? Was it for all his followers or only those we remember as apostles, or for those commissioned to succeed them in a special ministry, in what became the traditional role of the priest to give absolution in the ministry of reconciliation? It could apparently mean any or all of these things. What are the implications for our lives today of "the Son of Man" having authority to forgive sins. The ambiguity in the meaning in this saying shares some tension with the faith that he was both human and divine. Intuitively we relate his compassion and readiness to forgive to his humanity, especially to the way that he identified himself with sinners and welcomed them to his fellowship. Yet did not God show compassion to the people of Israel? (See the recent sermon God the Creator: ancient and modern.) Was it not part of his divine nature, and thus perhaps in Jesus more related to his divinity than to the humanity he shared with us? Did his authority to forgive sins belong to his humanity or his divinity, or is it impossible to divide his nature? It is full of puzzles and challenges, this authority to forgive sins. How far is to apply to us?
Why does authority come into it all? Can we not simply forgive when we choose? Are we indeed not required to forgive? Clearly we are. Jesus warned people of very serious consequences if they did not forgive others who did wrong to them; but, that is the point. We can forgive people who have done us wrong. If they owe us something, if they are in our debt, we can cancel the debt, we can relieve a person who has wronged us of any further obligation to us. We can do that because we are in a position to manage our own affairs. It is like having authority to make a withdrawal from our own bank account. If it is my account, my signature on the cheque is sufficient authority. It is our own business, when we forgive someone who wronged us. But can you forgive someone for the wrong they have done to someone else, the sense of having sinned against them? And does that apply to forgiving people who have wronged God as well as those who have done wrong to a fellow human being?
To continue the analogy, can we have authority to transact business on some other person's account? Perhaps we can, if the owner of the account has given us that authority. Does that ever happen? It appears that it did when Jesus gave the apostles authority to forgive sins, that is to put right through forgiveness wrongs done to God, for sin is an offense against God, just as we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "For us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive those who have wronged us". The wrongs for which we seek God's forgiveness might be wrongs done to other people, but such wrongs are also at the same time offenses against God:
We can feel the force of this when we remember how we can feel hurt ourselves when a loved one is hurt. I wonder then if the logic carries through. As we can accept the forgiveness of God when we confess that we have done something wrong to another person, a loved one of God, does it follow that we can accept forgiveness from someone else who loves that person? Clearly it is not a simple question. We need to make peace with others as far as we can even before seeking reconciliation with God (Matthew 5:23-24 - if, when you a makign a sacrifice of reconciliation with God, you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and first go and make peace with your brother or sister). It is not simply a matter of saying that we are sorry. To be reconciled to God or to another person, we need to repent of what we did wrong, to turn away from it, and that is more than being sorry, it means that we have to change our ways. "Repent and believe the Gospel" means "Change your direction and go another way, believing that in Christ God accepts you inspite of the wrong you have done". That does not mean that you have earned forgiveness by your repentance or that you have made up fully for the wrongs you have done; our debts can be too great for that, like the man in the parable of the two debtors who owed the king ten thousand talents. It is a matter of acting in good faith, of intending to do better in the future and showing genuine concern for the person who has been wronged. Humility and generosity of spirit are required. It is not a simple question, whether someone other than the person we have wronged can forgive us, but we are beginning to see here some of the elements in a ministry of reconciliation. In healing relationships we do not act alone. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. We are all part of the lives of others. We can be involved with others in processes of interpersonal healing. Where love is shared and a new way is sought in humility, faith and repentance, one person can act as a mediator of the grace of God to another. We must all have experienced that from time to time.
It is a priestly role to represent God to other people and other people to God. Those who are blessed by the Spirit of God for the ministry of reconciliation can mediate between God and sinners in the name of the great Mediator, Jesus Christ, who called and commissioned his disciples to forgive sinners. It was part of the Protestant faith from the time of the Reformation to believe in the priesthood of all believers. Unfortunately, that has all too often meant the priesthood of no believers, when every person is left to make his or her own peace with God directly; but surely, if we listen to Jesus, that is not what he intended. His followers were empowered to exercise the ministry of reconciliation. As Paul said, he has given us the ministry of reconciliaton, and that must mean that we are called and equipped to help others establish a new restored relationship with God in which their sins are forgiven. In the same way we are called to help reconcile people to each other. I am not saying that those who are ordained to a specific ministry in the church do not have a particular responsibility in the ministry of reconciliation. I believe they do, and my pastoral experience over many years confirms this. There are times when it is not sufficient to give a general assurance of the forgiveness of God when what a person needs to be forgiven in the name of Christ. As one set apart to a particular ministerial role, as a representative person, an ordained minister or priest has a responsibility and a commission to exercise that ministry of reconciliaton in the name of Christ in which sinners are forgiven their offenses against God. As I see it, that is a particular focus of the ministry of reconciliation that is given to the church as a body in which all members share in various ways. We are not all equipped with gifts of the Spirit in the same way, but the ministry of reconciliation is such a mighty task and so widely needed that it is not limited to the representative priest or bishop or similarly identified person. Some have it as a regular duty on behalf of Christ and his church. Others may share in it and be great blessings to those in need from time to time. The authority to forgive sins which Jesus passed on to the apostles is given to those who have the capacity in love and obedience to mediate the grace of God. We can be priests to one another as occasion requires and our gifts allow us without usurping the representative role of the person ordained to the ministry of presbyter (priest or elder) in the church.
Lest it appear that in exercising this ministry we might be claiming too much, too much authority, whether it be as lay or ordained ministers, it should be remembered that words of assurance offered in the name of Christ are a prayer. There is nothing magical in what we do. What we do is offered up to heaven in confidence. We declare God's forgiveness in trust that God will answer our prayer as Christ promised he would.
Neither is it all about reconciliation with God in isolation from other people. Love of God and love of neighbour go together. As we have been saying in various ways in passing, if disciples of Christ can help others to be reconciled to God we must be able to help people to be reconciled to one another. It is does not mean claiming authority to act for others when they have not given us that authority. Rather it is part of what follows from identification with other people, or bearing one another's burdens, just as Christ identified himself with us and carried our load of sin in his ministry of reconciliation between God and all humanity. It is part of the new wholeness of being that was the hidden purpose of God, that all things should be brought into unity in Christ. It means that we are called into community. As we were remembering last week, the wholeness of life that is salvation includes the healing of relationships as well as persons, in body, mind and spirit. If we love one another, we have authority to forgive as in love and humility we serve each other as ministers of reconciliation. That is a gift of God, a gift of grace, given freely to us in Christ. To him be all the glory. Amen.
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